Founder / Editor


Associate Editor


Assistant Editor











Under Siege in Congress, Public Broadcasting Has Boardroom Support
March 11, 2011  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

In an era when government funding for public radio and television seems to be under new attack, the importance of program underwriters has risen sharply. And despite economics and politics, some big companies have continued their support.

Businesses steer funds from their marketing budgets to public media programs as a selling tool, an image-enhancer and/or a sign of support. Though there appears to be no public ranking of these companies, names like Canon, Liberty Mutual and ExxonMobil are among those often connected with continuing support of non-commercial shows.

And then there's Subaru. The carmaker is a sponsor of public TV's Antiques Roadshow, Globe Trekker, Growing a Greener World, Sara's Weeknight Meals and Pedal America, and public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, World Cafe, Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me and Fresh Air. Previously, it was an underwriter of the public TV series Garden Smart.

"Our company has been a big fan of PBS and NPR for a long time," said Alan Bethke, Subaru's director of marketing and communications. "Despite the recession, we've maintained that."

He would not share how much Subaru spends for underwriting or what percentage of the marketing budget it commands. But Bethke links the expenditures to three years of sales gains and a 50% increase in Subaru market share over that period.

The programs his company underwrites, Bethke said, give it the chance to connect more closely with consumers whose buying and lifestyle preferences align with Subaru's marketing message. Lifestyle profiles of a program's fans -- its psychographics -- determine whether his company will spend money to reach them. The producers of public shows collect that data and use it to cement underwriting acquisition.


In addition to exposure in messages at the start and end of a program, these companies often see other benefits. Underwriters can receive exposure on a program's website, and they can be included in events linked to the program, said Suzanne Zellner, vice president of corporate sponsorship at WGBH/Boston. "Multi-platform packages" such as this can be ingredients more effective than those offered by commercial broadcasters, she said.

"[Underwriters] see a tremendous value from aligning their brands and reaching the kind of audience" that meets their target market, Zellner said.

Subaru, for example, staffs a display that features vintage and current models of its cars at each hall in which WGBH's Antiques Roadshow appears each year [photo above]. It also receives tickets to the events, which it can give to customers, as well as the opportunity for ticketholders to meet the program's appraisers, Subaru's Bethke said.


WNET/New York, like WGBH, plays a large role in public TV program production. In the current recession, corporate funding accounts for 10 percent of WNET's budget, said Kerry Kruckle-Gibbs, vice president of development [photo at right]. She said that in an improving economy a goal of between 15 and 20 percent is realistic. She sees the donation by James and Merryl Tisch of $15 million for the station's new Lincoln Center studios as a signal that other donors are moving toward more support. As-yet unannounced underwriting deals are being worked out with some first-time public broadcasting underwriters, she added.

Factors that retain underwriters and attract new ones, said Harvey Seslowsky, the station's executive director of local and national advertising and sponsorships, include an uncluttered on-air environment, polling that consistently shows PBS as the most credible network, and the chance to connect with "unique programming that, quite frankly, nobody else wants to do."

Subaru's Bethke said public broadcasting gives his company a valuable chance to match programming to current and potential customers' "passion points" -- whether it's an interest in world travel, concern about the environment, a fascination with history, making healthy meals, personal fitness, or news and current events.

"Our [Subaru] owners are naturally curious about things," he said. "We've been able to connect with them on like-minded subjects. Historically, Subaru has been a niche marketer, and these shows have given us the chance to find people who were predisposed to Subaru and speak to them directly."

(Disclosure: As TVWW readers know, David Bianculli is a contributor to and guest host of NPR's Fresh Air. This story was conceived without the writer's knowledge of the Subaru connection to that show, but was based on the frequent presence of the carmaker on public TV. Bianculli did not know I was working on this story, nor did he know of the Subaru interview. The writer does not know the kind of car his editor owns -- but remembers a fear-inducing journey across the freeways of Los Angeles in which the editor, as driver of a rental, reignited the writer's love for walking.)

1 Comment


Alejandro said:

I did a search on "how much money does Subaru give Globetrekker", and this article came up. Of course, the actual answer isn't there. Would you have any recommendations on how to go about getting that figure? I need it for a project for grad school.



Comment posted on June 30, 2011 1:12 AM
Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 Name (required)
 Email (required) (will not be published)
Type in the verification word shown on the image.